WASHINGTON – A National Guard program formed in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union has adapted and continues to provide benefits to partnerships around the world, Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said at a Defense Writers' Group breakfast in Washington.
The State Partnership Program matches state National Guards with nations. It started to help countries newly freed from Soviet domination learn how the military operates in a democracy. The program also taught nations how to build the capabilities to qualify for NATO membership.
Beginning with 13 partnerships in 1993, the program now has 82 partnerships encompassing 89 nations. They span the range from Poland to Papua-New Guinea, Vietnam to Uruguay and Indonesia to Nigeria. The National Guards in all 54 states and territories and the District of Columbia participate in the program.
These are long-term commitments. "I was in Croatia over the weekend, and Minnesota has had a partnership [for] 25 years with Croatia," the general said. Hokanson met with the Croatian president, defense minister and the chief of defense. He said they each told him how valuable their partnership with Minnesota is.
Croatia became a NATO member in 2009, and yet the partnership with the National Guard continues. Croatian soldiers deployed with Minnesota Guardsmen to Afghanistan.
"When I was the adjutant general for Oregon, we had partnerships with Bangladesh and Vietnam, and it was really, it benefited both of us significantly," he said. "On one end, we will work with the countries to determine what they wanted to work on. In the case of Vietnam, they wanted to help set up an emergency management center and wanted to know how we did that."
The Oregon Guardsmen helped them design the center and coached them on operational procedures.
Hokanson said this isn't a one-way arrangement. When Vietnam had to deal with flooding along the Mekong River, National Guardsmen learned how the Vietnamese handled the crisis. "When we sent our Soldiers and Airmen over there, they develop those relationships, and, for the folks in Vietnam, they get to learn a lot of things that we had learned," Hokanson said. "For our Soldiers and Airmen, they get a more global perspective of what was going on and their role in it."
The nations exercise together and service members from privates and Airmen to generals get hands-on experience. The National Guard has an added benefit in that the personnel in the Guard may stay in place for 10 to 20 years, the general said. They develop personal relationships with their counterparts in partner nations.
This amounts to another avenue of communication for the partner nations. If there is a disaster or incident in a country, they may feel more comfortable calling the partnership contact. "That sort of thing happens, actually quite a bit," he said.
The Oregon Guard helped develop the Cascadia Earthquake Plan along a "megathrust" fault. "We openly share all that documentation with [Bangladesh]," the general said. "Because at the end of the day, just like us, they're trying to really take care of their communities and their nations and respond to things to really mitigate … human suffering."
The program costs roughly $30 million per year and continues to grow.
"We do this at a very, very low cost, and we are trying to get more consistent funding because it goes [from] fiscal year to fiscal year, but it is probably one of the best values our nation gets when it comes to developing long-term relationships," he said.
The program works closely with the State Department and with the combatant commands. It is an entry for the United States in many of these areas. Hokanson noted that the majority of military personnel who go into Africa and South America are from the National Guard because of the extensive partnerships.
The program also is growing in the Indo-Pacific region and is very strong with the nations on the periphery of Russia.
The program continues to grow, and, in an era of strategic competition, it's an excellent way to build and nourish partnerships, the general said. The nations set the goals, and the National Guardsmen work with the nations to achieve them. Their goals include making strides in disaster response, officer and noncommissioned officer development, aviation operations and maintenance, cyber defense, infantry tactics, engineer activities and military medicine.
Once a nation reaches its goals in an area, the leaders sit down and discuss what further steps are needed.
"It's a process," Hokanson said. "A process among friends."